Rise of Skywalker’s Palpatine Reveal is Star Wars’ Smartest Marketing Yet
At the end of the new trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Luke Skywalker's voiceover seems to assure the viewer: "No one's ever really gone" just before we hear the chilling laugh of Emperor Palpatine. The Emperor's laugh is the perfect marketing technique for the final film in the sequel trilogy, generating buzz for the film and giving fans room to speculate without any spoilers about the plot of the upcoming film.
By including the reveal in the trailer, Palpatine's role is purposeful and controlled by the production, rather than leaked to fans through unofficial sources. In the past, director J. J. Abrams has had problems with leaks, which subsequently led to him lying in interviews about Khan's inclusion in Star Trek Into Darkness. In contrast, putting Darth Sidious front-and-center (without actually revealing anything about him) seems like a stronger marketing strategy that will get fans excited about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
One of the biggest advantages of Palpatine's laugh is that it reveals he will play a role in the film without any spoilers. As a result, fans have the freedom to theorize how Palpatine will return and in what capacity, creating conversations about the film. Will he be a clone, like his return in the now non-canonical Dark Empire comics? Could he be a Force ghost (signs point to no)? Did he learn how to be immortal from Darth Plagueis the Wise, or was he Darth Plagueis all along? Could he have survived the events of Return of the Jedi and become Snoke? Is it possible that he is a recording or a simulation? Did he possess Vader's mask? Without any visuals, even showing his face, the trailer establishes Palpatine's return but leaves the how of his return open to speculation.
With such a large-scale production, leaks are inevitable. It would be difficult for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker's production to completely hide Palpatine's return without the press finding out about actor Ian McDiarmid's casting. Revealing Palpatine in the trailer preempted any major leaks, so fans learned about Palpatine's return in a controlled way through the official marketing channels. The result was an enthusiastic outpouring of excitement and conversation about the film, exactly how the marketing team would want fans to respond to the first trailer.
J. J. Abrams got himself into hot water during interviews that preceded the film Star Trek Into Darkness when he denied that Benedict Cumberbatch would play Khan, the infamous Star Trek villain. When Into Darkness arrived in theaters and Cumberbatch was indeed revealed to be Khan all along, fans were upset that Abrams had lied leading up to the film. Abrams later said that he regretted the secrecy around the film's villain, claiming that the studio didn't want people to feel they had to know about Khan in order to see the film. It seems that Abrams has learned from past mistakes, choosing to make Palpatine central to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker's marketing.
Emperor Palpatine is an iconic Star Wars villain and a fan favorite, so it's no surprise Kathleen Kennedy said Lucasfilm always planned to have Palpatine return in Episode IX. Because fans know that Palpatine is a major threat, the trailer does not need to prove anything beyond his existence to prompt a huge response from the Star Wars fan base. If Palpatine is coming back, then fans know that the stakes are higher than ever in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.